Next stop: Wonga Circus? The arguments for and against branding Tube stations

This week it emerged that London Underground stations may be allowed corporate sponsors under plans being considered at City Hall. The money-spinning idea, which some predict could raise £136m a year, would see landmark stations renamed and Tube lines given a corporate makeover, paving the way for Burberry by Bond Street, Virgin Euston and the Vodafone Line.

Here brand experts Toby Southgate and Daniel Todaro present the cases for and against branding the Tube...

For - Toby Southgate, CEO UK & IRE, The Brand Union

One thing first up. ‘Virgin Euston’ and ‘Burberry by Bond Street’ are suggestions that fundamentally repel me personally. As a professional, I would also counsel against Transport for London (TfL) exploring these options. Crude, commercial intrusion is an extremely quick and efficient way of alienating the public.However, brand sponsorship is an area that, executed correctly, can enhance the experience for all involved. Interestingly, there's strong precedent in this area. Gillespie Road famously renamed itself to Arsenal once a certain football team moved there. Surrey Docks became Surrey Quays to coincide with the building of a shopping centre. ‘Virgin Euston’ is jarring, but would Westfield Shepherd’s Bush be quite as concerning? Consider the landmark Emirates cable car sponsorship, which saw a brand encroach upon the hallowed Tube map for the very first time. Naturally a few were not happy, but commuters have largely accepted the move. Again, the introduction of Emirates feels like a natural fit; the brand has fully invested in the cable car as a unique exception within the transport network. Logically, it's hard to criticise what some would perceive as infringement.Let’s not forget we’ve already seen brands take over the livery of tube carriages. Earlier this year Delta airlines created a large activation at Canary Wharf involving the entire station, taking advantage of JCDecaux’s concourse initiatives. Plus, Tube sponsorship is common in many other cosmopolitan cities like New York and Dubai. Madrid recently struck a deal with Vodafone to rebrand an entire line, as well as its Metro equivalent of Trafalgar Square.What this report represents is a valid debate-sparker. It has to be approached with reason, rationale and common sense, but equally it's clear that there are opportunities for raising revenues through untapped sponsorship. This could save passengers money - a good thing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the renaming of Trafalgar Square. I’m sure many passengers would agree that some of the iconic campaigns that adorn platforms are as much a part of the London Underground experience as passengers being outwitted by the ticket barriers and rush hour. Recently on Twitter someone posted an image of a platform at Green Park station completely devoid of advertising. It was a grey, bleak visage.Ultimately, what matters here is the view through the consumer lens. That’s the litmus test when approaching brand sponsorship on the underground. History as well as the present day tells us that this can work highly successfully through timely and appropriate creative that enhances the experience.Oxford Landing might not be right, but TfL would be foolish not to explore ways in which brands can really complement the commuting experience in a genuine, authentic manner. It doesn't necessarily mean infringing upon London’s cultural and historical landmarks – and that even includes station names.

Against – Daniel Todaro, MD, Gekko

Brand sponsorship is one thing, but forgive me if I’m wrong, isn’t the premise of naming a station based upon its location? The idea has been proposed and rejected before for a number of reasons, so it’s difficult to see why anything would have changed. As has been rightly pointed out, I’m sure this map is well-intentioned, but a Tube map is to show people where a station is and how to get to their destination. Can you imagine how obstructive this would be to tourists who are unlikely to speak English fluently? Our trains struggle to run smoothly at the best of times, thus I imagine it would not be wise to discourage tourism further. Some may argue it opens up an interesting debate, but I feel it offers the opportunity to open the corporate floodgates. TfL has insisted they’re against names being sold off “to anyone waving a cheque book and offering a bad pun”. However, selling naming rights aggressively across the public transport network would raise an estimated £136m according to the report. This would pay for just a one-year price freeze, not even a discount for London commuters, just a temporary measure against price inflation.So while in the initial stages TfL may maintain integrity with brand sponsorship, what happens after the initial three year sponsorship deals finish? The station name changes again (or reverts) causing more confusion, and perhaps a bidding war emerges. Perhaps then we see a lucrative bid from Wonga (which has already sponsored free travel) TfL are unable to turn down and before you know it, we’re travelling to Wonga Circus for a spot of retail therapy. Back in 2011, winemaker Oxford Landing very nearly exploited London Underground’s need for cash by offering a reported £10m for a station takeover for a minimum of three months. It may sound unbelievable to imagine Virgin Euston, but the only thing that prevented a realisation of Oxford Landing was a niggle over intellectual property law regarding the famous roundels.The cost of such a rebrand would already be substantial with the need to change media, signage, leaflets, and of course the iconic map. But the greatest impact would be felt through London losing its iconic location identities to brands. Yes we’re in a recession, but has the greatest capital city on the planet really come to this? Instead of seeking to profit from cultural and historical landmarks, and outraging the London public whilst doing so, brands should be focusing on charity and wider social responsibility. That’s how they can give back to the community, rather than compromising the capital’s heritage. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this argument crop up and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Admittedly it’s not as absurd as brands sponsoring police uniforms, but like that issue, it can become a very slippery slope. So what do you think - should Tube stations be allowed corporate sponsors? Share your views in the comments below...

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.